Category Archives: Chala

Episode 161: Starprey No More

“The Suzerain grants you welcome.”

Zack nodded, trying to avoid the irate looks that Chala was shooting at him. She was translating for the Suzerain during the Sthenite’s closing statements at the conclusion of his trial, but he could tell that Chala had more to say after she was done relaying the official’s words.

“You are free to move between any encampment that recognizes the leadership of the Suzerain, and afforded the protection and hospitality due any of the true people of this world. Welcome, Tzak, Starprey no more.”

The Suzerain finished speaking well before Chala did as she focused on translating, and the crowd of Sthenites reacted to the Suzerain’s statement well before Zack heard it in its entirety, with most hissing, whistling, and chattering excitedly to each other. He took a deep breath as he felt a single threat to his life suddenly nullified. He instantly regretted the inhalation as the moving air in the back of the throat triggered his cough again.

The Suzerain nodded approvingly and turned to leave, as did many of the other Sthenites who had gathered before the stage. Zack watched the majority of the Sthenites depart and quickly jumped to his feet. He didn’t have much time left in the head start that Fletch had granted him, and that was assuming he’d been keeping time correctly and that Fletch would honor her end of the deal.

He walked toward the perimeter of the camp, and moved to its outer wall, nodding to the two massive snakes who began pushing the boulder away from the way out of the camp.

“No! You don’t leave yet, Gamma!”

Zack winced. The boulders weren’t far enough apart yet. He couldn’t dive forward and race into the jungle. He turned around, saw the incoming fist, and nearly avoided Chala’s punch. He fell backward from the impact, tripped over his own shoes, and landed on the ground. Nearby Sthenites who had been chattering excitedly had begun whistling and murmuring nervously at the sight of the two human-Sthenites suddenly engaged in an altercation, and the two by the door paused, wondering if their services were still needed. Zack waved to them to continue as Chala pulled the bow off of her back and aimed it at him.

“How could you, Gamma? What you did there-”

“Look, if you’re worried about me shooting Nectra-”

“No! You didn’t shoot Nectra. I’ve seen that energy burst before.”

“Thought you might’ve,” he said, slowly inching back to his feet and massaging his chin.

“That was the Oborosian Stone!”

“Excuse me?” said Zack.

“The Fact. Don’t tell me you don’t know what it does. This whole thing… this whole set up, you and Nectra were trying to steal it right from under my nose!”

“No!” said Zack. “Look, I’m sorry, but when I figured out what the stone did, I realized-”

“And you thought you could mask it with your guns. The Sthenites might know pistols, but you’d guess they don’t know what yours look like on the different settings.”

“Right,” said Zack. “You’re right about that. But only that. Look, I’m not trying to steal anything. You can have it back, even.”

“I can?”

Chala lowered her bow, but kept rolling her finger around an arrow. Zack watched the weapons carefully.

“Sure!” said Zack. “Look, when I figured out what it did, it was an accident. Tossed me back a few minutes in time, only shifting my position a little. I had… I had literally no idea what was happening until I saw the Sthenites carrying me back to the hut where they were keeping me.”

Chala looked at Zack uncertainly, but still accusingly.

“How did you keep it from the Sthenites? The Phantom Matador had it.”

“I lifted it off him when Nectra and I were moving his body through the jungle. Hid it in my hat, which would be a good hiding place even if it wasn’t teched out. A good smuggler always keeps a false top in those things, at the very least.”

“So you had the Fact… you recognized it while moving the Matador… hid it in your hat where no one thought to look for it… and then figured out it was the Orobosian Stone?”

“Well, I didn’t know it’s name,” said Zack. “I recognized it as a Fact initially and wondered what it was, then I just… look, you hear about time travel in stories all the time, and I was stunned to realize the Fact allowed it, but I couldn’t pass up using it. I wasn’t gonna kill Nectra… and frankly, I’m glad I wasn’t planning on it, the state I’m in. But I sure wasn’t gonna let her kill me either. This was an out.”

“You should have told me, Zack.”

“I couldn’t! You might have thought it was cheating, and you’re a Sthenite.”

“And you don’t think it was cheating?”

“It was guile. I brought the real murderer to justice here, and got the nod of approval from the Suzerain, who just needed an out herself, as you put it. I think the Suzerain, and the weird hallucinated snake-person who talked to me, would both be fine with this.”

Chala shook her head.

“You should’ve told me, Zack. I wasn’t done studying the Orobosian Stone, but I’ve figured out a lot. Plus, a Virellium energy wave is required to kickstart the Fact. If she hadn’t been wielding that scythe of hers when she activated it, I don’t think it would’ve worked for her.”

Zack blinked and rethought the last moments of the trial, considering how high he’d turned the damage on his Purcellian Strikers to help sell the show. He briefly considered Nectra’s last moment being a realization of betrayal and quickly pushed that thought from his mind.

“You’re right,” he said. “I should’ve mentioned something to you. So… fellow Sthenite, will you help me track down Nectra? I left a note for her in my hat, but I don’t know if she’ll find it, and even if she doesn’t a smart assassin like her’ll probably be just outside waiting for us, but no sense making her wait too long.”

“Especially since she’s Starprey.”

“Seriously?”

Zack and Chala stepped into the jungle, and the titanic, cobra-like Sthenites began rolling the boulder back into place.

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Episode 160: Blinding Blasters

Captain Ortega instinctively activated his jet pack, and spun to a gentle stop. He shook his head, still not sure what had just happened but feeling like a grenade had detonated to the left of his helmet, which hadn’t been active moments earlier. Alarms rang in the suit’s audio notifier and flashed on the display inside his helmet relaying a substantial amount of damage, damage comparable to being struck by a mag-lev. He turned in the air, frantically looking for his assailant and seeing the titanic figure leaping, nearly filling his vision entirely. Instinct prompted the triggering of his jet pack more than rational thought, and the captain launched higher into the air, narrowly missing Harold Zamona’s enormous fist.

He zipped through the sky in the domed section of the vessel, saw a ring hovering in the air, and instinctively moved toward and through it, keeping his eye on the giant figure below. He issued a diagnostic command for both his suit and his weapon, using both the Astroguard standard commands and the customized diagnostic commands that a friend made shortly after it became clear that Doctor Rogers was taking their frequent altercations personally. While neither diagnostic program indicated any immediate tampering with his equipment (apart from damage comparable to crashing onto a slow Class-C asteroid on his helmet from Zamona’s punch), he decided to leave the processes running in the background.

As the antigrav thrusters built into the rocket pack sent him through the hovering ring, he caught movement out of the corner of his eye, rotated to the side, and saw Harold Zamona leaping off a ramp at the top of a nearby hill. The former wrestler sailed through the air, propelled by the power of muscles alone, and just missed a chance to swat Ortega out of the air thanks to the captain’s quick downward dive. Ortega looked up and over his shoulder to see the monstrous figure clinging to the hovering ring up above.

“Don’t think you’ll hide down there,” shouted Zamona. “I know I said there was nowhere in here I couldn’t get to you, but at least make me work for it!”

Ortega eased into an arc that allowed him to skim just over the grass while he examined the environment. He raised the laser blaster, took aim, and pulled the trigger just a moment too late to hit Zamona, who dropped from the ring, fell, and landed in the soft grass, an act that left a noticeable impression in the soil. Ortega slowed, took aim, and fired again, just as Zamona charged at him. The blast of energy connected with the forehead, making Zamona slow down and shake his head, as if momentarily dazed. Ortega’s eyes widened, and he took advantage of the wrestler’s slower speed to zip into the air.

“No offense, but you move and take a hit like some of the meaner dinosaurs. Hiding’s a viable strategy!”

“Like you know how dinosaurs hit…” said Zamona, holding his hand to his head and scanning the skies for his target.

Ortega pushed away a memory of an ill-fated temporal engine that Doctor Rogers had employed and focused on his surroundings. The laser had affected Zamona, but it did little more than daze him, which shouldn’t have been biologically possible based on what he knew of the blaster’s stun setting. Neurological scrambling should occur no matter how much musculature a human (or even human-like alien) possessed, but the wrestler remained standing.

With a final shake of the head, a look of clarity crossed over Zamona’s eyes and his gaze snapped toward Captain Ortega. Ortega quickly flew further away, and adjusted settings on the rifle to increase its lethality.

***

Zack’s aim was off.

Nectra was zipping leaping through the air quickly and not, he noticed, making the mistake of opening her wings to slowly glide, exactly the kind of opening he needed to make her drop. While he didn’t expect the cheering Sthenites to be pacified by simply rendering an opponent unconscious, he’d rather have that case be made with Nectra being the one taking the nap.

He coughed violently, feeling it deep in his chest. It was stabbing now, and if he ever figured out just how he picked it up he was going to dedicate a portion of his increasingly short life to making someone miserable. He looked up just in time to see the shangmere fall from the sky, kick his shoulders with her claw-like feet, and strike his head with her staff.

Zack fell back as Nectra lit on the ground, twirling her weapon as the multicolored blade of Virellium-fueled force energy activated. At first she was backlit by the bright sun hanging in Mandrake’s green sky, making her seem like a moving shadow with a single blue-tinted rainbow of a blade swooping away from her staff, but she thankfully stepped closer and reduced the glare. He couldn’t easily see her face during the fight, but standing closer to her now she looked genuinely morose. She shuffled forward, clutching her staff, but moving with a purpose that Zack never liked to see.

“Y’look like a kid who’s gotta put down a stuffed animal,” he said. He lifted an arm with one of his Strikers, but Nectra was still moving fast; she twirled her staff to knock the weapon out of his hand, and sighed.

“Bye, Zack,” she said, lifting the curved energy blade over her head. “I’m really gonna miss you.”

“Wait,” he said. “Nectra, there’s still a few ways this can go down. We didn’t really have time to talk earlier-”

Nectra’s eyes flashed and she looked up at the ring of Sthenites.

“I think the time for figuring out a quick escape was before we got here. This is… this is probably the worst time to say that you didn’t want to try to run away. They don’t sound reasonable. I don’t… I don’t think what you’re thinking will work. I thought you were going to k-… Zack, is this a trick? Is this-”

“Yes,” he said. “Definitely a trick. But not against you. It’s a longshot, but… look, we’ve got less time than a fish out of orbit. Win or lose, would you like my hat?”

“What?” asked Nectra, blinking a confused blink with her giant, unsettling eyes.

“If I die here, keep it,” he said, taking the green hat off of his head with a practiced roll of the arm. “But I’ve got a feeling I’m gonna need that back. Think you can hold it for me?”

“I… yes?” said Nectra, stepping forward.

Zack tossed the hat to the shangmere, who caught it easily. Nectra held it up, examined it, and carefully put it on her head while the cheers of the Sthenites became confused mutters and started the transition into angry hisses.

“This is weird,” she said. “I couldn’t wear this while flying. This would… not stay up, I’d need a pin or something.”

“Looks great, though,” said Zack. “Sorry.”

“Hmm?”

A bright flash of light lit up the pit and Zack twirled his remaining pistol, hidden under a fold of his coat. A tangy scent of ionization filtered through the air and mixed with the incredible stench of the superheated mud, breathing new life into the sensation for Zack, now alone in the trial pit of the Sthenites. The crowd looked stunned, but, after a few cautious verbalizations of approval, transitioned into a chorus of cheers and screams. Zack shakily rose to his feet, coughed, and looked up.

First, he saw the Suzerain, crossing her scaly arms and baring fangs approvingly. Then he saw Chala’s angry glare.

Episode 159: Trial By Combat

Zack stepped from the preparation cave and into the arena. A circular, rock-festooned pit made of the world’s ruddy soil, coupled with Mandrake’s oppressive sun, created a humid, radiating heat and a cloying odor that made it difficult for him to breathe. The opposite side of the arena wavered in the heat, but Zack assumed it wouldn’t be an issue for most of the combat. Sthenites slithered around the top of the pit, eagerly looking down to witness the first true trial by combat since their leader became the latest Suzerain.

Nectra clambered in from a preparation cave on the opposite side of the pit. She twirled her staff while looking around, saw Zack, and waved cheerfully. He lifted a hand in acknowledgement, and drew his pistols. Nectra took a step deeper into the arena and almost convulsed when she left the shadow covering her edge of the pit. She waited, allowed her eyes to adjust to the brighter light, and finished moving fully into her starting position.

Zack noted the reaction to the light after the shadow. It was stronger, he thought, than his own reaction to the smell, and while he could get used to the ever-constant mephitis of what amounted to damp, baking mud, the shangmere might have more difficulty with transitions between the shade and light thanks to her larger eyes. He’d need to cross all the way to her side of the pit to take advantage of that fact, though.

The susurrus of hissed conversations above subsided and Zack looked up. The cobra-like Suzerain had crawled into position, flanked by two smaller guards wielding spears. She began speaking, repeating phrases in the Sthenite tongue that Zack couldn’t begin to understand, though a few words were becoming recognizable. She continued speaking and waving her arms meaningfully, but without context Zack’s attention quickly drifted to Nectra, who was alternating between the Suzerain and Zack. She pointed at the Suzerain inquisitively, but Zack shrugged, just as lost as she was.

Whatever she was saying, she was reaching a crescendo, and the rest of the Sthenites were muttering and hissing to themselves, quietly at first but quickly getting louder as their leader did. Within moments, her speech was practically being shouted, and her audience was cheering and chanting with it, some even brandishing weapons at the sky, or the Suzerain, or even, Zack noticed, at the competitors in the arena.

Suddenly, the Suzerain cried out and struck an imposing pose, with her fist raised skyward. The crowd grew tense and the hundreds of serpentine eyes focused on the pit, their collective gaze almost having a weight of its own. Zack and Nectra looked at each other, uncertainly.

On the rim of the pit, resting just opposite the Suzerain, a yellow-scaled Sthenite twirled a bone from a recent meal, and struck the gong that had been quietly erected while Zack and Nectra’s eyes had been focused on the Suzerain. The two competitors jumped at the unexpected sound, a quick motion that prompted the crowd to begin cheering. Taking the cue, Nectra jumped into the air and stretched out her wings while Zack carefully took aim with his Purcellian Striker.

***

Captain Ortega let out a long, low whistle. He had envisioned a smaller room, and possibly a platform surrounded with the traditional electro-tethers, or possibly even archaic ropes depending on Harold Zamona’s wrestling preferences. Instead, the room reminded him of a pack-park, with patches of green grass interspersed with ramps, staircases, and spires on the ground, along with floating rings, hovering catwalks, and even a waterfall suspended high above that fed a gentle pond. Rocket-pack and jet-pack enthusiasts would compete on similar fields of play that weren’t half as detailed.

“Pretty picture, I say,” said Zamona. The captain of the Astroguard tore his eyes away from the room and watched the towering herald of the emperor swagger up next to him.

“I’d say so,” said Ortega. “Not quite what I was expecting.”

“Took some time to get it made. The hovering hydromill gave us problems of all sorts. Believe it or not, it was already partially finished when you went and made a fool of yourself in front of Veskid.”

“Lots of jet-pack joy-riders in your conscripts?”

“Keeps the morale high,” said Zamona. “I think you’ll find there’s nowhere in here that you’ll be able to jet to that I can’t get you, so I still don’t know how you expect to survive.”

“I’ll get by. Really going through with this?”

Zamona snapped a gauntleted finger, an action that produced a surprisingly musical chime, and soldiers bearing the logo of the Dyson Empire approached, one carrying the rocket and the other carrying Ortega’s Astroguard-issued blaster. Ortega nodded and began strapping the rocket to the back of his flight suit, hearing the familiar click of the internal motors that held the hardware in place.

“Thanks,” he said, picking up his rifle and checking it for signs of tampering.

“No problem,” said Zamona. “We’ve already started filming.”

Ortega looked up and around the environment. He couldn’t see any cameras, though he knew that hidden or microscopically small cameras didn’t need to be visible, though he didn’t imagine Zamona wanted to skimp on the spectacle.

“We have?”

“Oh, yes. Since you and I walked in. We have any viewers yet?”

Zamona glanced back at the entrance to the park where a small booth held a soldier who checked a readout and gave a thumbs-up.

“Well… glad we have an audience, then,” said Ortega. He looked to the far wall of the park and saw a massive window that revealed the stars beyond. Veskid was just rolling into view as the ship continued its rotation. He smiled, relieved to finally know exactly where in space he was.

“Same here. I didn’t much care for you trickin’ the poor folks of Veskid into thinkin’ that we had a deal. But since I never back down from a fight or back out of a deal, I wanted to make sure it was the best these people could ask for.”

“So, when do we start?”

Harold Zamona’s massive, boulder-sized fist slammed into the side of Ortega’s head, almost too quickly for his flight-suit’s collision-detection to snap the protective helmet into place. The powerful impact sent Ortega flying, rolling through the air and dropping to the ground at the base of the spire.

“Right now!” shouted Zamona.

Episode 158: Dressing to Kill

Zack wiped the sweat from his brow and looked over the array of daggers, spears, and swords before him, barely suppressing a cough. He could tell from the cloth of woven reeds that these were wrapped in that the Sthenites kept these weapons with care, but none of them truly felt appropriate for the situation.

“And the Purcellian Strikers are definitely out, then?”

“They’re only permissible if your competitor agrees to it,” said Chala. “And if your competitor has a suitably comparable weapon. Nectra doesn’t have a gun.”

“I’m telling you, she doesn’t need one,” said Zack. “Her staff is deadly, and I might die out there otherwise.”

“There are plenty of staves and cudgels here that you could take,” said Chala, gesturing to another rolled up parcel of woven reeds. “I think there’s one not unlike a shillelagh from Earth over there, actually, it might even be superior to her staff, weapon-wise.”

“Her staff can turn into a virellium-powered energy-scythe!”

“So you say,” said Chala, unrolling the new parcel and withdrawing a sturdy looking branch. “For what it’s worth, this is a legendary item that the Sthenites believe to contain magical properties. You won’t need to escape from your hut again to go looking for better weapons.”

“I’d rather use my strikers,” said Zack. “If she has a weapon she’s comfortable with, then I should have one as well. And I didn’t escape.”

“Fine, but pick another weapon anyway in case the Sthenites don’t let you use them. And you might not call it an escape, but when you get out without the guards seeing you I don’t think the Sthenites will know what else to call it.”

Zack sighed and looked over the options. One dagger in particular seemed dangerous enough to deal actual damage while also being simple enough for him to use. It was a hard, red substance not unlike chitin, and bent at the tip so that it was almost a sickle. He picked it up, and felt its weight.

“What can you tell me about this one?”

“It’s made from one of the mandibles of a threzh, a kind of cantankerously territorial plant creature. If it still has any of its poison in it, that could be a useful counter to a fast-moving energy scythe.”

“What’s the poison do?”

“A threzh can use it to slow or weaken its prey, sometimes fully paralyzing a creature for hours to make it easy to drag the prey back out of its territory. The Sthenites would only leave this weapon here if they thought it still had some of its kick, but this isn’t the first ritual duel it’s been available for. It’d probably slow down a person’s metabolism, at least, and make them slower.”

“That might give me an edge where a speed-freak like Nectra’s concerned,” said Zack. “I’ll take it. But I still want to use my blasters.”

“Great,” said Chala. “Hold onto them. I’ll make sure that Chala’s preparations are going well as well. If she’s using her staff, that might give you grounds to use your own weapon of choice. And practice with it a little instead of your pistols, it smells light lightning in here.”

“Wonderful. And I will.”

Chala turned to the door but stopped at the frame.

“So… are you really going to kill Nectra?”

“Maybe,” said Zack. “I don’t want to. I don’t think she wants to kill me either, but she was definitely willing to not too long ago. You’re one of the Sthenites yourself since you endured your own trial, right? Do you know of any such trials by combat ending peacefully?”

“No,” she said, stepping through the door. “Good luck, Gamma.”

***

“You look surprisingly relaxed.”

Nectra’s massive eyes fully opened without, it seemed, any transitional time from being fully closed. Chala mostly succeeded in not flinching as she gestured to the two pillars of stacked rocks in Nectra’s guarded hut. The shangmere herself was hanging upside down, using her feet to clutch the staff that stretched between the miniature towers. Nectra’s mouth stretched into an alarming smile, one almost made less disconcerting by being flipped.

“Thanks!” said Chala. “I’m trying to meditate before killing Gamma.”

“That answers that, then.”

“Answers what?” Chala’s wings opened and beat once, flipping her upright and letting her perch on the staff.

“I wasn’t sure if you were actually planning on killing Zack.”

“I don’t think I have a choice,” said Chala, her smile crashing into a morose frown. “The Sthenites will kill him anyway if I don’t… and while I’m not happy with blood on my hands I have to admit that this was what I wanted to do anyway when I first started hunting him. And sure, Zack said he could help reopen my legal case using evidence gathered here on Mandrake, but if I kill him I wouldn’t need that anyway and now I just wish I hadn’t made friends with him first.”

Nectra stood, stretched out her arms and wings, and fell back. Chala gasped, but realized that the shangmere was falling slower than a human would, and that she was falling onto the bed of reeds that the Sthenites had given Nectra to use when they remanded her to the hut. Chala watched Nectra lie motionless for a few moments before she sighed, rolled onto her side, and pulled one of her wings over her face like a blanket.

“This shouldn’t be so complicated. Or… actually, it should be complicated. I like complicated. I can work with complicated. This shouldn’t be so simple and horrible. The Sthenites have awful customs if this is what they make people do, just awful. If I kill Zack, do you think he’ll be mad at me?”

Chala didn’t mentally stumble over the question, but felt like it was a question that should cause stumbling. She walked to the mat between the rock pillars and knelt by the bat-like alien.

“No,” she said. “I don’t think he’d be mad at you for killing him. He’d probably prefer the alternative, but he understands how delicate the situation is. He’s constructed a situation where a Suzerain might even be able to step in to prevent a trial from being completed. With a different Suzerain who had more support from the different tribes, that might even be a remote possibility.”

Nectra flapped her wing back into place and sat upright.

“I guess we’ll just have to cross that road when we come to it. Thanks for not saying anything about claws earlier.”

“What?”

“When I talked about getting blood on my hands. I’ve used that expression before… sometimes I have humans stop expressions I’m making where I talk about hands, saying I should use claws instead. I love human expressions, though. And that expression involves hands.”

“You don’t exactly have claws, either,” said Chala. “They’re a bit pointier than human hands, but they’re definitely hands.”

“I know, right?” said Nectra. “Though I sorta do if you count my feet.”

“Those aren’t really-”

“Nah, my feet have claws. They’re really good for catching fish.”

“I-”

“Like, amazing. I’m great at catching fish. Fishing for humans is so slow, they just get in boats and wait for ages forgetting that the point is catching fish, thinking that waiting in a boat is the point, and I normally really like how humans do things, but catching fish is supposed to be active. Fly over the water, wait to see the ripples, splash in, and bam! Lunch. And, yes, I know that some humans hunt fish with spears, but there’s still a lot of waiting involved in that even if it’s more proactive. And don’t get me started on humans who fish with nets.”

Chala nodded, following the conversation flow.

“The Sthenites prefer hunting the native fish equivalent with spears. A few tribes use nets. Some just slither into the water to see what they can grab with their bare hands.”

“Ooh, now that’s nice… I couldn’t do that. I don’t see underwater very well if I’m actually under the water.”

“Speaking of nets and spears, though, I’m supposed to ask what sort of weapon you intend to use for the trial?”

Nectra pointed at the staff stretched between the rock pillars over Chala’s head. Chala glanced back up at it.

“Because there are plenty of weapons we can also offer-”

Nectra shook her head and pointed at the staff again.

“My staff can turn into a scythe around Zack. An energy scythe. Why would I use anything else?”

“Are scythes actually good as weaponry?”

“They’re better than good,” said Chala. “They’re awesome and cool as weaponry.”

“But are they capable?”

“Look, I’m using the scythe. Even if for some crazy reason a scythe wasn’t a good weapon, it can also be a staff which is also an amazing weapon, plus Zack is scared to death of this thing. You should see the look on his face whenever I activate it.”

“Zack feels there’s a disparity here, and that he should be permitted to use his pistols if you get to use your staff.”

“That seems fair,” said Nectra.

“For him to have a ranged weapon while you only have-”

“My awesome scythe? Of course it’s fair. I’m a little insulted by this anti-scythe attitude you’ve got.”

“Fair enough,” said Chala. “If there’s nothing else, I’ll take my leave now. Good luck prepping for the fight. Someone will be along shortly to deliver some fruit and… if you’re interested… I can have them include some fish as well.”

“Oh, yes, please,” said Nectra, rising to her feet and leaping back to her perch on the staff. “I’d love to give some of the local food a try.”

Chala nodded and walked out while Nectra clutched the staff with her feet, rolled forward, and resumed her attempts at meditation.

***

“Where is it?”

The Phantom Matador lifted his head and turned to look back, expertly revealing only his eye as Chala entered his hut. The two Sthenite guards rose to a firmer attention and lifted their spears at the sight of the new company, though the humans ignored them. The Matador turned back to resume looking at his cell wall, tapping his foot and creating a gentle clink as the wrought-iron manacle at his leg jingled.

“I don’t know what you mean,” he said, his sonorous voice echoing through the room, theatrically enhanced by either natural skill, his deceptive psychic abilities, or some quirk of the acoustics of the hut. “I do, however, see that you have my hat and my mask.”

“These are to trade. I give these to you, and you tell me what I need to get it back.”

“I think I agree… but sincerely, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“The Oborosian Stone,” said Chala. “The Fact. You broke into my hut and stole it, Starprey.”

“Oh, that was your hut? I’m sorry, I should have known. Knick-knacks from Veskid and articles of clothing not suited for the serpentine form, and you being the only humanoid I’ve seen here apart from Gamma and myself should have made it obvious.”

“Now that you know what it is, how about that deal?”

The Matador tapped his foot again and sighed.

“I would agree, but I can not help you. I don’t have it.”

“Then where did you hide it?”

“I didn’t. The… Oborosian Stone? The Fact wasn’t on my person when I woke. I assumed that, like my hat and mask, it had been taken by Gamma.”

“He didn’t take those,” said Chala. “He’d passed out by the time the Sthenites located him. They removed your hat and mask.”

“Then they have the Fact. Or Gamma does. Or the bat.”

“Nectra.”

“So she told you her name. She may be a brilliant researcher, but she knows nothing of maintaining mystique.”

“She knows it’s childish and accomplishes nothing.”

“It’s an art. I won’t be appreciated in my time. Now… considering that I don’t have what you want, and don’t know where it is, I have no more to offer you. Might I have them back as a matter of courtesy?”

“Why? Zack seemed interested in knowing who you are.”

“You mean he still hasn’t come to see me?” said the Matador, turning to look at Chala. She’d already seen his face when the mask had been removed, but she was still struck by how memorably average he looked. His face didn’t quite match the back of his head, with neither appearing strange except in relation to each other. She considered the possibility that he was using his psychic abilities to confuse something about his appearance in her mind, but dismissed the level of effect it might have.

“No,” she said. “Like I said, he passed out after you did. You woke up before he did. He’s not had time.”

“Not even to gloat?”

“He’s on the run from someone.”

“Nectra, yes, but I thought they were patching things up.”

Chala coughed, not sure what to say to that.

“Wait… are you telling me there’s someone else after him? Even here on Mandrake? That poor man… he’s blessed with an inordinate amount of bad luck.”

“That might be true,” she said. “I don’t know many details myself, only that he’s in a hurry and Nectra’s on his side. He and she will be fighting to the death soon, and then he has to leave.”

“I feel that I’ve missed something,” he said. “Please explain. I still haven’t picked up on the finer points of the language, and I doubt my wardens would be talkative even if I had, but under what circumstances do people on the same side fight to the death?”

“No,” she said. “You don’t need to know anything while you wait for your trial. Which will begin shortly after Zack’s concludes.”

“I see,” he said. “Then we have little more to discuss. Except for… my hat and mask?”

“Why do you need it on a world where I already know what you look like and literally no one else cares?”

“It’s an art form,” he said. “You’ll appreciate it after my time. I’d ask for my sword to complete the picture, but as I understand it I’m being tried as a criminal, so that might not be reasonable.”

Chala narrowed her eyes but cautiously folded the mask and set it into the hat before tossing the wide-brimmed sombrero cordobés to the prisoner. He smiled, bowed his head, and extended the hat forward with his hand as if having just doffed it.

“Many thanks. Even without the sword, I have everything from my Traje de Sombras. I can finally dress to kill.”

Episode 156: Polite Awakenings

Zack smelled oatmeal that came with a healthy portion of cinnamon, milk, and honey, a reminder that every day could be sweet. He also smelled the black coffee, a blackness like the cold, unfeeling emptiness of space, or like the soot or mud that covered dumpsters in back alleys. Coffee that black would be bitter and real, a reminder that if you forced yourself to like something that tasted awful, the side benefits could help you to last until the next breakfast where there’d be more coffee.

His eyes fluttered open, and the strange thatching of mud and leaves reminded him that he wasn’t home. His ceiling didn’t look like that. He was struck with the realization that he never truly thought about what his ceiling looked like, but he knew it wasn’t what was above him.

“He’s up!” shouted a voice. Zack winced at the noise and looked across the room, gasping in shock at the gangly, inhuman being before him before he remembered Nectra. The shangmere stepped across the hut, stepping away from a Sthenite he didn’t recognie, and a human that he groggily recognized as Chala.

Nectra moved in front of him and he shook his head.

“Hey. I’m sorry, I… how’d I get here?”

“The Sthenites carried you,” said Nectra. “And The Phantom Matador.”

“She was very resourceful,” said Chala, stepping forward. “She encountered the guards who’d gone to facilitate your trial and the hunters who’d been sent to make sure you didn’t try running away. They recognized her from your description, and gave chase, and pursued her… right to you, where she quickly surrendered. They found me and brought me into the action so that I could translate.”

The orange-scaled Sthenite watched the conversation between the three aliens and slithered out. Zack followed its departure but turned back to Chala.

“Excellent,” said Zack. “So, the Matador is…?”

“In the slammer!” said Nectra. “The, uh… hokey?”

“Do you mean pokey?” asked Chala.

“Probably,” said Nectra. “He wasn’t up when we left.”

“That’s good,” said Zack. He leaned back into the cot and almost started relaxing before a sobering thought anchored his mind back in reality.

“How long was I out? Wait, why was I out?”

“The healer wasn’t sure,” said Chala. “But you’re sick. I wasn’t sure if we could break you out of it, but Nectra suggested familiar smells.”

“Humans like familiar smells,” Nectra said, nodding.

“Right,” said Chala. “So I tried making some coffee, and getting some instant oatmeal from my supplies cooking. I’ve not broken into that box in a while since I got used to the local food. Up for a bite?”

“Maybe,” said Zack. “But how long was I out?”

“About three hours,” said Nectra. “Don’t worry, though. We’ve still got plenty of time to stay ahead of Fletch.”

“I hope you’re right,” said Zack. “We’ll have to leave pretty quickly now.”

“You can’t,” said Chala, concerned. Zack tilted his head.

“Why?” he asked.

“You’ve got a trial to finish,” she said.

“We don’t have time for that,” said Nectra. “There’s an implacable assassin who means to see him dead, and she’ll be tracking him relentlessly. Zack’s only chance is to run while he can!”

“No, she’s right,” said Zack.

“What? Why?”

“I met someone in the caves when the trial first started,” said Zack. “But… the trial didn’t finish. I’ve gotta finish the trial, otherwise the Sthenites’ll kill me. I might be able to evade Fletch on this world, but I can’t evade the Sthenites. Not for as long, at least. And I’d rather have them as friends than as enemies.”

Nectra frowned and looked to the door. After a moment she sighed, walked to the door’s frame, and picked up her staff.

“I guess I’ll need this after all,” said Nectra.

“Why?” asked Zack.

“Don’t you remember?” she said. “Zack, if you’re going through with the trial, then we’re fighting to the death.”

Episode 131: L’esprit de le Salon

Surshen’s story yielded confusing bounty. The Starprey was different than any other, so different in fact that it was decided, after much deliberation within the tribe, to not be Starprey at all. Prey was what you hunted, not what you found struggling to live.

No sport could be had with such an intruder, and like a child taking in a wounded flame serpent so did the tribe decide that, at least in this case, the wounded would be cared for.

***

The sun was setting, and the stars were just becoming visible in this region of Mandrake. The Phantom Matador finished balancing the logs and twigs in front of the cave he had chosen for the evening. Carefully, he maneuvered the handle of his energy blade and activated it so that the searing sword would be in contact with the pile without destroying it. In moments it began to smoke and, with a few quick breaths, it caught fire. Satisfied, the Matador pulled the mask back in front of his face and deactivated the blade.

“Lots of secrecy for someone just trying to make do in a jungle.”

The Phantom Matador looked over his shoulder and saw Zack Gamma. He placed the deactivated pommel of the sword into its mostly-decorative charging sheathe, and turned to face the detective.

“There are those on this planet who would profit by my identity, Gamma. The price on my head may not be as high as yours, but it remains. How did you locate me so quickly?”

“I spoke to Chala… the lady you stole the Fact from.”

“She had no idea where I had gone.”

“No, but I also spoke to Nectra, and she had some amazing insights into finding you.”

“I see… so, Nectra has decided to work with you instead of killing you. Pity. She needs you dead to get the support she needs for her case to be reopened, you know.”

“That’s a bridge to cross later.”

“Yes. It still doesn’t explain how you found me. She’s hidden with me a few times, but never when I’ve been hiding on my own.”

“I couldn’t have found you without Nectra’s help, though. Or Chala’s. Or yours, really.”

“Excuse me.”

“Hate to say it, Mat… can I call you Mat?…”

“Mat?”

“Short for Matador. Hate to say it, Mat, but the Fact wasn’t the only thing that Chala had in her forge.”

“Yes. She stockpiled Virellium, though it was unpurified. A suitable treasure, but not one that interests me more than my own survival.”

“Yeah… about that. It’s everywhere in there, buddy.”

“I fail to see the relevance.”

Zack reached into his coat and pulled out a device, a box with a screen and an antenna that the Matador had seen in operation before.

“The tracker,” he said. “The device that Nectra used to find you.”

“The Gamma Tracker’s an astounding piece of technology, I’ll give ya that. It led me right to you. Unfortunately, it doesn’t track me specifically. It tracks Virellium and people who’ve been exposed to it. So right now… right this second… there’s only three humans on the planet that it can find. One of them’s me, and I’m not interested in tracking Chala. But buddy, you spent more than enough time in that forge to qualify.”

“Incredible,” he said. “The device works wonders, then. It’s hard to believe that Nectra couldn’t prove it worked.”

“There aren’t that many people who’ve encountered Virellium,” said Zack. “It’s not common, she couldn’t do any tests. Heck, if Chala hadn’t been stockpiling it, I’d probably be the only person on the planet that it came after. Scientifically speakin’, that wouldn’t even be a good test, it’d just mean that it could track me for some reason. Tracking two wanted fugitives who only have this single thing in common, though? That’s scientifically noteworthy. Might even help to get Nectra’s case reopened. Plus, now it doesn’t matter that you’re so good at slipping away. This thing will find you anywhere. No matter where you go or how fast you run, Nectra’s tracker can follow you. And with her notes, more can be made. We’ll figure out who you are before you know we’re looking. Turn yourself in now, Matty, and maybe I’ll get you off this planet and into police custody on Veskid instead of seeing whatever passes for justice among the Sthenites. I’ve got a feeling they’re tough but fair, which is great news for folks like me but just awful for murderers like you.”

The Matador turned and walked a few paces from Zack, holding his chin. He looked up at the sky, and saw the pale green fading to a beautiful black.

“So… you say you want to figure out who I am?”

“Of course I do.”

“Does this mean, then… does this mean that you were mistaken about who you thought I was? Or are you no longer so sure?”

“What’re you talking about?” said Zack.

“When we were up in the sky… in that big, black, beautiful dance of stars and planets and asteroids before we fell into this unforgiving world… you said that you’d figured out who I was. And you said some things… some things that made me wonder if you had.”

Zack thought back to the asteroid. Something about the Phantom Matador’s words rang true. He didn’t recall the event, but there was definitely something there.

“I… don’t think you can blame a guy for wanting to double check.”

“Tell me who I am, detective,” said the Phantom Matador. “I challenge you. Tell me who you thought I was, at least. Earn your parlor scene. Or am I to remain ‘Mat’ to you, then? A harmless nickname to mask your own failure?”

“This ain’t about me,” said Zack. “You comin’ quietly or not?”

The matador looked back at Zack Gamma, just as a breeze caught his cape and lifted it behind him. He reached down to the hilt of his energy sword, drew it, and activated the shimmering blade of light just as a shooting star fell through the night sky behind him.

“Never,” said the impossibly cinematic phantom before fading from view.

“Nice exit,” said Zack, checking the screen of the tracker. “But let’s see how long you can keep ahead of me.”

Episode 122: Getting the Facts

“He’s nearby,” said Nectra, hopping back from Zack and twirling her staff. She set it into the soil and leaned into it, almost clutching it, with the shimmering blade of Virellium energy curving over her head. Zack carefully stood and inspected his pistols for damage.

“Near enough that he heard us planning, or near enough that we’ll find him in five, maybe ten, minutes?”

“The second,” she said. “Maybe longer if he sees you coming. He’s got sharp eyes.”

“I’ve got deep shadows,” said Zack. “We’ll see which one wins. Baurik? Or… Barik? Bar… Chala’s friend?”

“What?”

“I’m calling someone, I think his name is Baurik. He’s a Sthenite.”

A gentle shake of leaves sounded and the yellow and green-scaled Sthenite stood between them, ruffling his feathers and tasting the air with his tongue.

“Oh, look at him!” said Nectra. “Oh, he’s adorable! Don’t you think?”

“Yeah, you only get teeth like that on the cutest puppies and venom like that on the nicest echidnas. Hey, Baurik. Shtothro Nostrauhara?”

“Vashtara thaul Tzak vash.”

“You can tell what they’re saying?”

“No, but I’m good with sounds. I think I’m asking if we can leave and chase the Phantom Matador without all of Baurik’s friends in the bushes making us pin-cushions. I think he said that it’s fine. Where to?”

“Just across a stream west from here,” she said. “Will your friends come along to help us?”

“I doubt it,” said Zack. “This is part of my trial now.”

“Okay, then. Follow me.”

***

The Phantom Matador paced beneath the jungle canopy, his black mask and hat still covering his face despite the incredible heat. The shangmere had taken too long, and he wondered if he would have to rescue her again.

The snapping of a nearby twig brought a stop to his pacing. He stared in the direction of the disrupted foliage, wondering what kind of animal would care to stay so still after making a careless noise.

“It’s you, then,” he said. “Very well. Step out of your hiding place so that we might settle this face to face.”

An arrow sailed from the underbrush, but missed the Phantom Matador by over a foot. The black-garbed man tossed his head back and laughed with a musical tenor voice.

“The Phantom Matador won’t fall so easily! From the moment you laid eyes upon me, you were already deceived. It may be a breach of etiquette when I ask you to stop hiding when I continue to do so, but the conversation will be much less tiresome for both of us if you comply!”

A rustle of leaves to the left of the Matador announced the arrival of a human woman with black hair and a bow made from a machine. She neared the Matador, who raised an eyebrow.

“I confess, I expected you to be hiding elsewhere… was the twig snapping a diversion?”

“I moved after I shot the arrow,” she said. “I almost didn’t believe Zack when he said how you dressed. That cape has to be sweltering.”

“Fashion is always worth a little suffering,” he said. “It is a pleasure to meet you. I expected the only other human on the planet, and was not disappointed. It is curious that you know Zack Gamma, but not entirely surprising, given the circumstances.”

“Why did you kill the Sthenites near my hut?”

“They were trying to stop me,” he said. “They seemed very taken with the idea of preventing me from leaving.”

“Give it back.”

“Give what back?”

“What you stole.”

“Can one truly steal in a world with no laws?”

“There are more laws here than you know,” she said, nocking another arrow.

“Yes, yes, the tribal concerns and rules of the wild and all that,” he said. “You and I know better, though. Miss…?”

“Chala.”

“Miss Chala, I come from a more civilized and enlightened world view-”

“Most visitors to this planet feel that way. They all believe the Sthenites are worth exploiting.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said. “I wasn’t saying that humanity is more refined than the Sthenites, though from a biased point of view one might make that case. No, I was saying that within humanity I am more refined than your average individual.”

“Which led you to murder innocents in a village.”

“It was self defense,” he said. “And I certainly wouldn’t have been there if someone hadn’t been stockpiling a highly dangerous substance.”

“It isn’t dangerous if handled properly. And they would have only attacked you if you were handling it improperly. It’s not a secret to them. I’m not exploiting them. They know I have it, and that I can treat it with care.”

“So you DO believe that I stole Virellium from you.”

“Yes, of course,” she said. “Assuming you’re not just an insane murderer, you must have taken something, and Virellium is what there was to steal.”

“Are you sure you have… the Facts straight?”

Chala lowered her arrow.

“What?”

“Don’t play coy now. You heard me, and there was legitimate need to clarify when I did it. Do you have your Facts straight?”

“Facts?”

“Exactly.”

“So you did steal something,” she said. “But not the Virellium. …Why would you steal that?”

“I knew what it was the moment I saw it,” he said. “It may not be in my field, as it were, but the value is unmistakable. And say what you will about not exploiting these people… you KNEW the value of it. Why else would you even have it?”

“Give it back to me,” she said. “Give it back, and I won’t kill you right here.”

“Miss Chala, you are more than welcome to try,” he said.

Chala pulled back her arrow and released it, launching it directly at The Phantom Matador. The Matador seemed to vanish just before the arrow struck, allowing it to embed itself in a tree.

Episode 114: Bite of the Red Guard

The sthenite shrieked again at the sight of Zack, standing over the corpses.

“This isn’t,” Zack started, honestly not sure where he was going with it. He looked at the two sthenites on the ground, and at the scorch marks that were left behind by their assailant.

“Shyese tzanara Dojurbu Hansha!” he said again, holding his hands up in what he hoped was an acceptable sign of non-aggression. The sthenite slithered backward, a visual that Zack hadn’t been prepared to see. It tilted its head like a nervous bird.

“Shyese tzanara,” Zack said, slowly pointing to the two corpses just as the overseer had said, “Dojurbu Hansha.”

He thought about the situation. Was he actually pointing at the first dead sthenite that he had seen when he pointed at Dojurbu? Or the sthenite that he hoped was Dojurbu?

Another Sthenite rounded the ledge, and began climbing up the rocky path. Zack saw the red scales and cobra-like hood that he’d come to recognize as common among the physical laborers and guards. The new sthenite saw an alien in a green trench coat and horrible hat standing where and how a murderer might stand. The guard hissed and jumped at Zack, baring its fangs. Zack tried to dodge, but was too slow to avoid the lightning-fast strike.

***

“Zack!”

Zack coughed and sat up, feeling a sense of overwhelming dread.

“What?”

“Zack, I need to talk to you.”

He blinked. The light was dim. He was lying on a small bed made from woven reeds. Was he in a hut? Someone was sitting next to him.

“Chala?”

“Zack, how did you know Dojurbu and Hansha’s names?”

“How… the strange… thing that managed the trial, she told me what their names would be.”

Chala didn’t answer. Zack’s eyes were starting to adjust. It was definitely her.

“She told me that those would be the names of the first two sthenites I saw when I left the cave. I didn’t know that they’d be… I really don’t know why all this is happening. Someone followed me into the trial pit.”

“Not possible. The location of the exit is a secret to those who haven’t finished the trial.”

“She has a way of finding me. She’s an alien.”

“So are you. So am I.”

“No, like… not a sthenite and not a human. She’s a shangmere, and she’s got a way of tracking me.”

“How?”

“She says that it tracks Virellium Force Energy, and anyone who’s come in contact with it.”

Chala stood and walked to a wall. Zack dimly registered the image of her leaning against it, but she was right at the edge of his vision.

“The phrase you said to the one who found you with the bodies? It saved your life. She saved your life, I mean. She told the guard what you said, and stopped him during the venom injection. She said that you knew the names and that it was important.”

“That’s a relief.”

“There was a third murder,” she said. Zack tensed and stood, ignoring the sudden headache that standing caused after his venom injection.

“A third murder?”

“Someone else was killed in the same manner as Dojurbu and Hansha. She was killed in front of my hut in a different village. A messenger arrived to report it.”

“Do they think I killed her as well?”

“She died while you were in the trial pit. It lends some credence to the mystery surrounding your appearance outside the trial pit, a place you shouldn’t have found until much later.”

“The attacker in the trial pit, she wants to kill me.”

“And others as well, it seems. All while trying to find you.”

“That doesn’t make sense, though,” said Zack. “Why would she track me to your home in a different village?”

“Because of my forge,” she said, just as Zack’s eyes finished adjusting. “It’s where I keep all of my supplies. Everything I work on. And, unfortunately, where I’ve hidden a substantial amount of Virellium.”

Episode 107: Public Hearing

The Suzerain of the Sthenites was a monstrous snake creature, and Zack initially mistook her for one of the guards. She wore the same gold-colored armor that the guards wore around their torsos, and featured the same red and orange scales and cobra-like hood that he saw on the guards, menial workers, and others who relied on strength. She slithered around a fire that was the focus of an amphitheater, hissing and rattling and yawning strange words that reminded Zack of a grizzled police chief he once knew.

The Suzerain stopped on the far side of the fire and stared down at Zack. He stood on the slope that led up to the gigantic gourd that had been carved into the stage in the center of the city, and a crowd of other Sthenites watched curiously.

“Kneel,” said Chala, quietly speaking behind him.

“What?”

“Kneel,” said Chala. “Ordinarily you’d fall onto the ground, but they let me just kneel, so here’s where you kneel.”

Zack awkwardly looked into the emerald, predatory eyes of the Suzerain. He dropped to one knee and looked at the ground leading up to the fire. The Suzerain resumed speaking and, judging by the sudden appearance of orange and red scales between him and the flames, she resumed slithering as well. Soon she was out of view again, her oddly bird-like voice the only sign that she was still present.

“Now stand,” said Chala.

Zack rose and the Sthenites behind him began whispering rapidly to each other, creating a tense skirring of voices and feathers.

“Say ‘Tsaya lassar, tsara yaurala.’”

“What?”

“It means ‘I agree and await judgement, Suzerain.’”

“You didn’t say Suzerain.”

“They don’t speak English. You need to say ‘Tsaya lassar, tsara yaurala.’”

Zack stared into the eyes of the Suzerain. They seemed predatory, but not cruel.

“Tsaya lassar, tsara yaurala?”

The Suzerain growled with a purring rumble. Soon she began circling the fire again.

“She accepted it,” said Chala. “We need to work on your pronunciation for later, though.”

“What did I agree to?”

“Not important right now,” Chala whispered.

The Suzerain continued finished a circuit around the fire, coughed twice, and began speaking again. As she spoke the voices of the Sthenites behind them became louder and more scattered.

“What’re they concerned about?”

“They’re just debating the decision the Suzerain reached. Some feel she’s made the right call, some feel that she’s being too merciful. Others feel that she’s been too harsh.”

Chala’s voice was distant, further away and no longer whispering. Zack looked over his shoulder and saw Chala no longer standing just behind him. Instead, she stood on the ground near the other Sthenites.

“Chala?”

“I can’t help you in the next part. You’ll be fine.”

“Next part?”

A large, cobra-like guard surged from the crowd and grabbed Zack by the arm, trilling angrily in Zack’s face.

“Hey!”

“Don’t fight him,” said Chala. “Yell or scream if it’ll make you feel better, but don’t resist it. He’s following the Suzerain’s orders.”

Zack was already being slithered down the ramp and through the crowd, but listened to Chala’s instructions. The guard pulled Zack through the gathered Sthenites and across the village to a small building made of stone. Some smaller, green-scaled Sthenites chirped excitedly at the approaching guard and worked together to open the heavy stone door.

Zack saw torchlight through the door, a green fire burning from the alien tree branches within. Something about the scenario felt off to Zack, but it was too late to avoid being pushed into the enclosure. He landed on a surprisingly soft bedding of leaves and branches.

“Good luck in there,” said Chala, peering from behind the other Sthenites.

“I thought you said I’d be in for some kind of… trial pit?”

Before Chala could respond, the bed of leaves and branches shuddered and started to descend into a hole carved in the floor. Zack saw four winches controlling ropes on the platform as it began descending into darkness. He instinctively moved to step off, but Chala held up a hand, warning him to stay on.

Zack watched the floor rise up and looked back at Chala, locking eyes with her until the ropes lowered him out of sight.

Episode 91: Of Sthenites and Strawberries

Zack stared at the sharp tip of the arrow. It was a very clean cut, and metallic, made by some factory. It had a realness to it that dwarfed the now-distant threat of the Desperate Measures Agency. The woman pointing it at him was serious… he either needed to get off the world immediately, which wasn’t an option yet, or get way from her.

”Starprey?” he said, repeating the word she’d just called him. The meaning was obvious, but he needed a few moments for his brain to spin into gear.

“It’s what the Sthenites call offworlders,” she said. “They come from the stars, and because of what they’ve done and tried to do before they’ve earned the penalty of being hunted for sport. Allegedly for food if we’re talking about the Azurebacks, but they say a lot of things about those people.”

“So when you kill me, you won’t be handing me over for dinner then, Miss…?”

“Chala,” she said.

“Never heard that name before.”

“It used to be Charlotte, but Chala sounded more like the names they have here, so it’s what I go by.”

“How long’ve you been working on gaining their trust?”

“A long time now,” said Chala. “Not really your concern.”

“Where do you get the arrows?”

Chala raised an eyebrow.

“Excuse me?”

“It’s a strange arrow.”

“It’s a common design.”

“I’m sure if I went to a sporting goods store on Veskid I could buy some just like that, yeah,” said Zack. “But you say you’ve been here a while, long enough to gain trust from societies that don’t trust offworlders. Did you stockpile a huge number of arrows before you came here, or do you have some way of making them? A little shop or machine that can make fresh ammunition?”

“Arrows can be retrieved and repaired,” she said.

“Which would be a lot easier with a shop. Do the, uh… Sthenites? Do the Sthenites approve of industry as long as it’s small and on the personal level?”

“Of course,” she said. “They know the value of technology, they’re not stupid. They have metalworking, wheels, written language, agriculture, everything a culture needs to thrive and advance.”

“So when you land and set up a place for yourself, they see your machinery and think of you as… what, a blacksmith?”

“Let’s not focus on me anymore, let’s get back to you. Can you, or can you not, call for your ride now?”

“No,” said Zack. “There’s no network here, and she won’t be back in range for a few hours at the earliest.”

Chala frowned, as if thinking over options. Then she released the arrow.

Much earlier, on another world…

Harold Zamona came to the slow realization that he was waking up.

His head hurt. He didn’t know how a pain could be dull and distant while also feeling strong and immediate. He lifted his hands to his face and felt the strange sensation of metal against his forehead, a reminder that the gauntlets were still, as always, a part of his life. It was fortunate that his incredible muscular strength also came with increased physical durability; even with the gauntlets, such idle motions would have caused many self-inflicted calamities otherwise.

He could smell strawberries? And dust. Where was he?

“I think he’s coming out of it,” said a voice, a man.

“I’m going on the record… again… as saying this is a bad idea,” said another man.

“We know,” said a woman. “We’re ready if it is.”

Harold shook his head and, somehow, forced his eyes open. It was hazy and shadowy, but things were coming into focus. Soon, two shadows in front of him congealed into the forms of a man and a woman, standing in a room filled with stacks of crates and boxes. The woman was wearing an outfit that reminded him of a nun’s habit crossed with a futuristic knight’s armor, and the other was wearing a green trench coat with a matching hat that, given its antenna, could probably connect to any local networks and might have its own computerized functions.

He felt a surge of adrenaline and almost jumped at the two, but resisted the urge when he realized that the first was pointing some sort of energy rifle at him, and the second was lowering two Purcellian striker pistols his way.

“Sister Barris and Zack Gamma,” he said. “The lawyer who would help Azar when no one else would, and the investigation and protection specialist who was hired by an unknown client right when Barris and Azar needed to drop off the grid. This is good.”

Barris exhaled, as if she’d been worried.

“Why?” she asked. “I’m glad you think it’s good, but it doesn’t look like things are going your way.”

“It means I didn’t tear down the wall of that laundromat for nothing,” he said. “You’ve gotta make quick decisions in this line of work, and it’s always good to know you made the right one.”

“Doesn’t look right from where we’re standing,” said Zack. “You’ve put us in an awful position here, frosty.”

“Frosty?” said Harold.

“As in frozen,” said Zack. “You’re the Iceberg.”

“I’m not anymore,” said Harold. “It’s just Harold now. Or Harry. They might call me for another special night, but the wrestling life’s effectively behind me. Where’s Azar?”

“Why should we answer any questions?” asked Barris. “You’re the one who invaded our hideaway.”

“I heard three voices,” said Harold. “And there’s two of you. Who’s the third person? I assume it’s Azar, but if I’m wrong, just let me know.”

Zack and Barris shared a quick glance.

“So… Azar’s here, then,” said Zamona. He started to stand, but Zack took a more definite aiming stance.

“Stay right there,” he said. “Stay right on the floor, or Barris and I send you back to dreamland, and this time you won’t even get the chance to make a return trip.”

“Why did you bring me here, then?” asked Zamona. “Why not end me at the laundromat? Or just leave me there while you made your getaway?”

“The police would have found you,” said Barris. “Questions would be asked, charges filed, and anyone who was looking for us who wasn’t already hot on your trail would get that much closer.”

“Then drop me off on a park bench or side alley on the way to wherever we are instead of bringing me the whole way,” he said.

“Believe me, I wanted to,” said Zack.

“Then why didn’t you?”

“I asked them not to,” said another voice.

Harold turned his head. There was a small passage leading away from the dusty room, a hallway obscured by shadows and a stack of boxes. What were all the boxes in this room for? A dark face was peaking out from the hallway, a scruffy, grizzled face that had seen a lifetime of hard work and sacrifice. Azar.

Zack rolled his eyes.

“Would you mind?” he said. “Get out of here. We’re trying to keep you away from the dangerous bounty hunter.”

“We’re not getting anywhere,” said Azar. “Harold, is it? How did you find where Gamma and Barris were keeping me?”

“I checked with the DMA to find likely agents who were working protection jobs,” he said. “Worked out that most of ‘em weren’t protecting you, and narrowed down the remainders until Gamma was the most likely person to follow.”

“See?” said Gamma. “Exactly what I told you he would’ve done. Now, can we please shoot him and follow his suggestion of leaving him somewhere that we aren’t hiding?”

Harold tensed. The lawyer and the detective were both good shots from what he remembered, but they needed focus. If he moved quickly he could probably disarm one of them without the other shooting him. That might buy him all the leverage he needed to reach Azar and escape. He prepared to leap…

“Wait,” said Azar. “One other question for him. How much is Bristlecorp offering for me?”

“A lot,” said Zamona. “Anyone who finds you is not only going to retire, but they’ll retire well. They could buy a small planet without hurting their savings.”

“That’s a lot of money,” said Azar. “What if I offered to pay you instead?”

Harold smirked.

“I know you’ve got a lot of cash,” said Zamona. “I don’t think you want to pay me as much money as it would take.”

“Maybe not in a lump sum,” said Azar. “What if I paid you in employment? Mister Gamma and Sister Barris are wonderful at what they do, but extra protection couldn’t hurt.”

“My rate’s pretty high,” said Iceberg.

“Hang on,” said Zack. “Azar, a word? Barris, keep an eye on Harry there.”

Zack walked to the hallway, stepping around the strawberry-scented cartons. He leaned conspiratorially toward Azar.

“I get what you’re trying to do here,” said Zack. “I really do. But here’s the thing: we’re not on the same tier as those three punks who tried to jump you in the alley anymore.”

“They weren’t punks,” said Azar. “They were financially troubled, and desperate for any way out.”

“Right, okay. But Harold Zamona isn’t destitute. He’s not poor. He’s still making money from merchandising. He might have some financial troubles now and then, a lot of former celebrities do, but I can’t say I’ve ever heard of any. He’s one of the smart ones. People like him aren’t bounty hunters because they need the cash, they’re bounty hunters because they’re bored. And even if I’m wrong? You can’t just pay more than your bounty to every bounty hunter. I know a Virellium Coin is worth a lot of money, and your interest is crazy, but how many until you lose a coin? Twelve? Twenty? Fifty? Eventually the bounty’ll still be on your head, and you won’t have any money to make it worthwhile.”

“I don’t need to pay everyone who comes my way,” said Azar. “And I certainly don’t plan on paying in just money.”

Azar pushed his way past Zack, stepping into the room. Harold looked up, but Barris kept her eyes and her rifle aimed his way.

“I don’t like being on the run,” said Azar. “I don’t want to be enemies. My offer stands. Join me, Harold Zamona. I don’t know how long this will last, but until it’s all over I need protection, and I don’t want to keep secluding myself in places like this.”

“Where are we, by the way?” said Zamona.

“That’s not important,” said Barris and Gamma, simultaneously rushing to speak before Azar could answer.

“The point is, I need someone like you,” said Azar. “I’m making Barris accept a payment comparable to what I’d be paying an overtime lawyer, even though I think she’s just donating it back to that order of hers. Gamma takes a standard DMA fee of the same amount. If you joined our organization here, we might have something to work with. Barris running her legal work, Gamma keeping his eyes and ears open everywhere, and you for more, uh…”

Azar nodded at the gauntlets.

“…you for more hands-on security, if you don’t my mind saying so. These two tell me that you’re quite strong.”

“The strongest,” said Azar. “Sounds like quite an adventure.”

“It hasn’t been yet,” said Azar. “It’s dull waiting around for people to kill me. But I want to stop surviving and start living. If you’re there to protect me, that might be an option.”

The room became quiet. In the distance, the sound of some machinery added to the scent of strawberries in the air.

“Let’s say I said yes,” said Azar. “When would I be starting?”

“Right away,” said Azar.